Text of Aravinda’s Speech at the Bel Air Town Hall meeting, January 17, 2017.
Good evening, Mayor Burdette and Town Commissioners, Chief Moore, Mr Bane and members of our town Administration,
Today I would like to talk about upholding civil rights in our community. I am here in the belief that when it comes to good community police relations with a strong civil rights foundation, we are all on the same side and that we can help each other and work together to improve that on an ongoing basis. I have come to public meetings to show solidarity for others but I have to say that it is not so easy to come and speak about my own experience. So before I do so I would like to take a moment to appreciate the hard work that our police department and our entire town administration do and request everyone here to join me in applauding their work. They make Bel Air a great place to live!
With that good faith I am going to briefly share something that happened to me recently and what I think we need to do as a community.
One day as I was taking my morning walk I was stopped by the Bel Air Police and asked what I was doing. I replied that I was just walking. The officer asked where I lived. As I was only a short distance from my home I pointed towards it. When he asked my name I asked why I was being questioned and he told me that someone had called the police. “Walking while brown?” I asked. He said, no, nothing like that, someone might have been concerned that I was lost. I asked for his card, which he gave me, and I reassured him that I was not lost. I also said, “I respect that you are doing your duty, and we really appreciate the work the police department does, we hear about it at the town meetings. I don’t have a problem giving you my name but I would like to know what my civil rights are in this situation.”
A supervisor arrived and asked me what was happening. I related what had happened up to that point, reassured him that I was not lost and asked if I was free to go. He said, “no because you are under criminal investigation.” I was very surprised by this. I asked for his card. He said, “after you show me your ID.” As I had just come out for a walk, I had not carried my ID with me. “Why don’t you have ID?” he asked, “Are you here illegally?” I again asked for his card. He said, “After you give me your name.”
At this point I gave my name and date of birth, and after they looked it up in their system, they allowed me to go. He did not give me his card and I did not ask again.
My family and I, with the support of some friends have spoken about this incident with the Chief of Police, Charles Moore and with our Town Administrator, Jesse Bane.
To reiterate what I said up front, I am sharing this incident here not to ask anyone here to find fault or take sides. We are all on the same side and can use this as an opportunity to learn and improve. The responsibility to uphold civil rights is one that all of us share, and we need to do our part and also expect the police to do their part.
Police are trained in dealing with people when they stop them on the street, but ordinary people are not necessarily trained in interacting with the police. I did not know when I was stopped whether I had the right to remain silent, whether I was legally detained, or what information I was required to provide.
Asking for information about my civil rights, or asking why I was being questioned, should not be construed as not cooperating and should not be grounds for intensifying the questioning or escalating the situation. If the police asked for my name and I asked why I was being asked my name, then I would hope that they would be able to answer that question without asking further questions as they did that day, such as asking to see my ID and asking, “why don’t you have ID, are you here illegally?”
There is no requirement to carry ID and Chief Moore stated clearly that it is not the policy of the Bel Air police to ask people about immigration status. We also asked whether a white person would have been asked, “are you here illegally?” and he was candid enough to acknowledge that they would not have. I understand that the police department is taking this issue seriously and plans to follow up with further training as well as community meetings to educate citizens about their rights. When we spoke with Mr Bane earlier he shared with us that when he served as Harford County Sheriff the department held a program called “Citizens Academy” where citizens would learn about their rights and also have a chance to change places and face situations from the point of view of the police. These kinds of programs will help foster good community relations and I would request everyone here to attend these programs whenever the police department offers them. I have also been in contact with the ACLU and they are interested in conducting a “Know Your Rights” training which will help people know what to do when interacting with police.
To quote my mother, all of us want to know what the police should do and what we should do so that the police can do their jobs and we can live in peace.
Fortunately what happened to me did not result in any physical harm or arrest but it has had a chilling effect in that I think twice about taking a walk in my neighborhood. For the first time, my mother said, “should I be worried if I take a walk? If I wear my sari?” To my surprise my father mentioned that he sometimes wondered if someone might see him walking down the street and consider him suspicious. They have never felt these worries before and should not have to feel them today. Everyone of us should feel free to walk in our neighbourhoods or anywhere.
When I have privately shared this incident with some friends they have commented that “you have been in Bel Air forever!” My brother, sister, and I went to Bel Air High School. My family has lived here for over 30 years. While interesting, these facts are actually irrelevant because even if I just moved here from Alabama or for that matter from Albania, I should be able to take a walk without worrying about whether someone might think I look different and therefore “suspicious.”
This brings me to the point of diversity, which by the way makes America great. We talk about being inclusive. Inclusivity is reciprocal. So today I would like to welcome you to the reality that I face as a person of color. Often people say, “why can’t we be color blind?” To be honest, much of the time, my color or anyone else’s color is not foremost on my mind. It was not on my mind when I was first stopped. I believed I was equal and would be treated that way, and therefore felt free to ask about my civil rights – I was being color blind. Only when the supervisor asked “are you here illegally” did my sense of color, and of being unequal come forth and my interest in my civil rights take a back seat to getting out of the situation safely. Public safety does not need to come at the cost of civil rights.
Because I experienced this situation and the way it escalated, and because when I shared this with friends and acquaintances, I saw that others were as concerned as I was, I thought it was important not only to speak privately or in separate meetings or in a church, but to reclaim all of Bel Air and our county as a safe space.
I would like to see our town meetings as a place for the town to come together and share our commitment to upholding our values. When something like this arises, especially when, fortunately no one was harmed, it may seem easier to dismiss it but I think the effort that we put in today and going forward to talk about it and work on it will be worthwhile if it strengthens our community and helps prevent a more serious incident from occurring. We are seeing such incidents regularly in other towns and cities, and we cannot assume that something like that might not happen in Bel Air or Harford County. But it does not have to, and we can do our part to avoid it.
I believe that the police, town commissioners and town administrator share a commitment to civil rights and keeping Bel Air a safe place for all – safe in the sense of free from crime and safe in the sense of feeling that our rights are secure and that we can speak publicly without fear. I was nervous about doing this and I have to credit Chief Moore, when I told him yesterday that I wanted to share my experience here today, he said, “I encourage you to do that.” When I told our town administrator Mr Bane, he said, “that is what the town meeting is for.” And my faith in Bel Air surged when he said, “If we don’t get response from the community and are left to figure all this out on our own, then 90% of the time we will get it wrong.”
So there is a lot I am expecting from our police department in terms of seeing to it that this does not happen again, specifically that people are not unduly detained or asked inappropriate questions, and that police officers comply with the law and with their training, give their cards when asked and answer questions without considering the very act of asking a question as not cooperating. At the same time I am expecting a lot from the entire community gathered here. Please heed the words of Mr Bane and respond whenever the town and police department organize events like the Citizens Academy or the Community Forums. Often we think of diversity awareness as “just one of those things” but we are going to need to do it like we mean it, now more than ever.Take Action Donate
Video of Aravinda’s speech at the meeting of Board of Town Commissioners in Bel Air, MD.